I should level with you: I don’t like Rayman. The armless, charmless creation that launched Michel Ancel’s career has never sat right with me: something about his tuft of blonde hair, sat atop a smug grin, in games that never really moved the genre forward. So when asked to go check out the Origins preboot at London’s Eurogamer Expo my expectations were understandably low. Like many things in life — the taste of cold Chinese food for breakfast, Britney Spears’ greatest hits collection, the film What Women Want — I was genuinely shocked at just how brilliant something I’d previously written off was, the game showing incredibly well at the convention.
Where the title excels is in its careful selection of what made the first so well loved among fans, while removing the now archaic elements of the 16-year-old classic. Praised for its chunky and bright sprite work, Origins looks to live up to the legacy with some of the smoothest 2D animation seen to date, a Bluth-esque exaggeration to every movement, from the eponymous protagonist and his sidekick Globox, to the sickly and lanky fodder and screen-filling one-off enemies scattered across the Glade Of Dreams.
Even when not in motion, Rayman Origins looks superb. Each of the areas of this vertical slice representation featured thick and inky enemies upon multi-layered, globby oil paint backdrops, and no matter the environment shown, including jungle, desert, and dark cave, the style never seemed out of place. Put all this together with some snazzy particle effects, smart light sources, and the ability to show hundreds of moving sprites at one time, and the result is an interactive cartoon, a platformer whose visuals are somewhere between a high-quality Saturday morning kids show and the Disney features of yore. That may sound hyperbolic, but five minutes with the game and you’ll be a believer, too.
So it looks great, but how does it play? My biggest frustration with the first title — its nearest comparison — was unfair deaths through leap-of-faith moments combined with brutal difficulty that failed to adequately teach players how to overcome situations. The camera now has more freedom to move into a position to better show the play area, giving more than enough advanced warning of impending doom. Success doesn’t feel cheaply snatched away; the onus is now on the player to become better at the game. But without a doubt, Rayman Origins is still hard, hard, hard.
Hard? Hard! Kick-your-ass-if-you’re-not-paying-attention hard, though no challenge shown was completely insurmountable, with each attempt of a particularly tricky section, such as escaping the giant chomping jaws of some unspeakable horror, bringing Rayman closer to that photo finish. Literally: the finish is Rayman having his photograph taken in game, stood behind a humourous stand that one might find on a 1960s Blackpool beach.
Did I mention it was hard? Well as if to reinforce the issue there are also non-essential challenges to complete too, such as nabbing each collectable in the level, or special rooms like those seen at the bottom of Warp Pipes, each with a twist on the formula. A particular favorite I saw was one seemingly based on Angry Birds, using a spring board to launch Rayman at a series of structures with bad guys inside.
Alleviating the stress caused by the absolute precision required at times — such as hitting a platform no wider than the limbless one himself, or timing a run perfectly to escape certain death — is well pitched checkpointing. Screw up and it’s back a fair distance in the game, though never over such great distances as to seriously punish the player, instead making one work back through the last sixty seconds, improving and learning.
So color me surprised, whatever that color may be. Rayman Origins was my shock of the show, walking away from the lonely booth hidden at the back of the expo with a giant grin on my face and a mental note to put some cash to one side for its mid-November launch.